It’s silly to expect every book on the Classic List to be brilliant, but you can expect to react to it. Cucko’s Nest is an awful book, but it’s not one that just passes by. Catcher in the Rye either pisses people off or become their inspiration for becoming an author. Even if you give up on Catch-22 because of how confusing it is, it’s still a reaction. Sometimes, these classics end up being both terrible and great at the same time, like Roth’s American Pastoral. To Kill a Mockingbird, unlike the aforementioned novels, failed to cause paragraphs to write themselves in my head.
Perhaps it was radical when it was published, but now To Kill a Mockingbird is a very tame, easy book that goes down easily and teaches a few nice lessons that you probably already know. It’s not that you can’t still say interesting things about obvious ideas like racism is bad and trying to see things from the other’s point of view. The child perspective is also not a reason to see the world in duller colours. Children don’t see the world in a simpler way, just different. There’s none of that here. Only around the end of the novel the ideas are starting to get examined. Until then, they’re just told as if they’re true and that’s it.
As a feel good novel, it’s great. Scout and Jem are fun, the black servant is treated as a part of the family and the adults always strive to understand children. If they don’t, they’re assholes. Racism is bad, but we’re never invited to understand why people are racist, or its true emotional damage. The true racists are just white trash, and their reasons for it is because they’re ignorant and stupid. There’s no challenging of the concept. Harper Lee could have at least asked us why do believe race exists anyway. Instead, she points at the white trash and says, “Look at those ignorant meanies”.
All the praise for Atticus is for how great a human being he is, but good characters aren’t necessarily good human beings. Characters are not real, so the standards of what makes them good differ from people in real life. Max Cohen, from Pi, is an unpleasant, elitist douchebag. In real life, his only merit would be his brain. Since he’s fictional though, he becomes someone to explore. His douchebaggery and intelligence are equally important. In real life, Atticus would be great. In a novel, though, he doesn’t do much but good. He listens to his children, defends the negro and never surrenders. That’s awesome, but what are we exploring? Only near the end Atticus’ ideas are challenged. Until then, he’s nothing but a beacon of light, and not a good one, either.
Atticus’ compassion is painted as noble, but plenty of times it’s really surrendering. Understanding someone’s point of view doesn’t mean not telling them they’re wrong. We should understand why people are racist, why they kill, why they steal, but it doesn’t mean to excuse their behavior. Sometimes, it’s perfectly reasonable to fight back. Look at the Jews. They tried to assimilate for so many years, and their reward was this kraut guy who wrote a rambling book about his struggle.
Jem and Scout are also unstable characters. Scout narrates the novel with intelligence and empathy, but her character is aggressive and childish. It could be that you grow up from wanting to bash everyone’s head to wanting to help the elderly, but the progression isn’t believable. Scout matures, but remains fairly aggressive and confrontational throughout the novel. In modern times, Scout would have walked with Linkin Park and Sum 41 shirts. That’s not a bad thing, but Harper needed a major event to convince that Scout went from a proto-punk to an intelligent, soft-spoken woman. Jem’s character is just a mess. Sometimes he’s just as aggressive as Scout, other times he’s intelligent and mature. This would have been a great thing if Jem was presented as a contradicting mess, but he’s not. He’s supposed to be the mature child, but ‘mature’ children are generally messy and confused. Take Holden Caulfield or Piggy (Lord of the Flies). Both are fairly mature for their age in aspects, while in others they’re way behind. Jem is mature and childish whether it suits the scene or not.
There’s an interesting examination of gender roles. Both the male stereotype and the female stereotype come under scrutiny. Scout doesn’t want to be ladylike, and prefers to do boys’ stuff and wear overalls. She finds it unbearable to be in the company of ladies who live and die on refreshments. On the other hand, Atticus is not much of a typical macho guy. He doesn’t drink, gamble, shoot, or fight. It sounds great so far, but it’s another undeveloped idea. Atticus’ refusal to be a macho dude is held as a virtue, same with Scout’s tomboyishness. There isn’t a connection between these do incidents, though. They exist mostly to tell us how unique Scout or Atticus are.
Harper fails to navigate her themes, but she’s at least a competent storyteller. If you read this solely for the story and try to ignore any message she tries to deliver, there’s plenty of entertainment. Harper is an excellent writer. The style is not too unique, but there’s almost no misplaced words. Every sentence flows well. She also has a large cast of side characters who each have their unique quirk to make them memorable. Mockingbird lacks a central plot, but its various episodes are all interesting enough on their own. In fact, as far as worldbuilding goes (If you call a small town a world), To Kill a Mockingbird is a success. Its characters are odd and interesting enough that each could have its own novel. Harper Lee should have written more novels not because she had anything interesting to say, but she created an interesting enough setting that was worth developing more.
To Kill a Mockingbird functions as a decent tale of small town life. It’s a failure at exploring any of its themes, but it manages to carry itself by its storytelling. The reason for its popularity is obvious. If I thought that ‘feel-good’ was enough, it’d be one of my favorites. Good people like Atticus aren’t interesting, though, at least not unless their goodness is challenged is anyway. It’s a fun, cute novel that leaves a lot less to be discussed than the worst Classics.
3 Recluses out of 5